User Experiences of Archive Catalogues and Use of Primary Sources

On 19 June we ran a webinar on user research and user behaviour. We had three speakers – David Marshall, a UX Researcher from the University of Cambridge, Kelly Arnstein, a UX Specialist from the University of Glasgow, and Deborah Wilson, a Subject Librarian from Queens University Belfast.

Link to view the Zoom recording of the session – please use the passcode : m^9xj.vt https://jisc.zoom.us/rec/share/T1HJWEHzO5jvLEoJEEjzm2ch9DhlHKiGUQGEQSzrt-jhQ6DzFUEKvyBpWuOTa-Xv.IKKYEwWG9fT5-lup

(main talks 1hr + 25 minute discussion). Slides are also provided as links (below).

The talks were excellent, and followed by a lively discussion. They should prove to be useful to anyone looking at designing a website for archive catalogues, and working with students using primary sources. Overall, there was a lot of consensus about user behaviour, which is useful in terms of sharing findings – because it is likely to be relevant to all archives. The emphasis for this session was on students and academic researchers, but we did discuss some of the challenges of meeting the needs of a diverse audience.

A few summary points that came out of one or more of the talks:

  • People may use an archive catalogue for research and also for teaching, scoping a project, marketing and other reasons.
  • Researchers want comprehensive detailed descriptions
  • They value name of creator
  • They want an idea of the physicality of the collection and the overall size
  • People want context and hierarchy, and like the idea of ‘leafing through’ material to see relationships.
  • There are those who want to get quickly to what they need and those who value browse and serendipity. This seems like a possible tension, and certainly a challenge, in terms of interface design. It may be that at different times the same researcher wants a quick route through and other times they want to take time and discover.
  • Cambridge research found that some users wanted to limit their search by date initially, but there was a strong feeling that a wide search and then filtering was generally a good option.
  • Finding everything of value was seen as key – many researchers were prepared to spend time to discover materials related to their research and worried about missing important materials.
  • The physical object remains key to many researchers
  • Saving searches and other forms of personalisation were seen as a good thing
  • Quite often researchers, especially if they are more experienced, understand that research skills are important and archive catalogues are complex; this may contrast with library databases, where they are more inclined to want to get to things quickly.
  • Undergraduates often don’t understand the different approach needed to engage with primary sources
  • Undergrads often engage with archives at the point of an assignment, where they are being marked on their use of primary sources; they initially try to find sources in the same way as they would search for anything else.
  • It is really valuable to educate students on the importance of context, the broad search and filter approach, understanding citations, evaluating databases, etc. They often don’t really know what primary sources are and can find them off-putting.
  • Researchers can make assumptions about what a repository holds, and then be surprised to find that there is material that is relevant for them.
  • A bad catalogue can put a researcher off, and they may choose to go further afield if the catalogue offers a better experience.
  • People often ignore tooltips. It is a challenge to provide help that people use.

David’s Slides: https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/documents/user-research-dm.pptx

Kelly’s Slides: https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/documents/user-research-ka.pptx

Deborah’s Slides: https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/documents/user-research-dw.pptx

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